09/10/2002 11:00PM

Now, Delta's a destination

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Ten years ago I visited Delta Downs and swore never to return. Now I find myself reconsidering that pledge.

Earlier this week, the track announced it would offer a $500,000 stakes race for 2-year-olds on Dec. 21. That's right, $500,000, meaning the only richer 2-year-old race in the United States will be the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Delta Downs, you say? Isn't that the bullring track where jockey Sylvester Carmouche held his mount up for a lap to "win" a three-turn race in the fog?

That's the place.

Other than that incident, many people outside the South haven't even heard of Delta Downs, much less know where it is. I didn't either, until I went there a decade ago. It is in a small Louisiana town called Vinton, which has a population of about 3,000.

How does Delta Downs survive? By being on the Louisiana-Texas border and drawing visitors from other cities. Before Texas started offering major parimutuel horse racing in the mid-1990's, Delta Downs offered the closest racing for residents of Houston, a city of 1.8 million people. That allowed Texans to head east a couple hours and play the ponies. For Texans starved for racing, it was better than the alternative, which was nothing.

Then in 1994 Sam Houston Race Park opened in Houston, which understandably reduced attendance at Delta Downs. Delta's future was bleak, and so was its racing. Even with video-poker machines supplementing purses, the track offered cheap, low-quality racing.

Times are changing. Bolstered by slot machine revenue, the track has become a gold mine. A healthy chunk of that gold has made its way to purses.

Purses swelled this winter, and the track emphasized higher pots for Louisiana-bred and claiming races. This led to large, competitive fields, much like those in West Virginia at Mountaineer and Charles Town.

The rise in popularity at Delta Downs has created short fields at Fair Grounds - which does not have slots - and handle and purses at the New Orleans track declined from the previous year.

This winter, Delta will run an 80-day meet, from Nov. 7 to March 23, with purses of approximately $160,000 a day. Thirty-six stakes will be offered with purses of $2.5 million.

That may not seem like much to those of us accustomed to handicapping races in New York, Kentucky, and California. But it is when you consider the size of Vinton. It would seem inconceivable that Delta Downs could offer $40,000 more in purses per day than Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, which has a population over 500 times greater than Vinton. But, it does.

By offering a $500,000 stakes race, Delta Downs is working to change its image. It will receive media exposure unprecedented for the track, and the eyes of the national racing public will be upon it, if only for a short while.

Can you imagine Bob Baffert at Delta Downs? Of how about Jerry Bailey? With a half-million dollars on the table, that's a possibility.

That's enough to make me reconsider the vow I made when left the Delta Downs parking lot 10 years ago. It might be time for a return visit to Vinton.